In the last years of his life, the great Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was apparently hampered in his ability to use his right hand — a factor that may explain why he never finished one of his most iconic paintings, the Mona Lisa.
Some scholars have attributed da Vinci’s late-in-life hand impairment to a stroke, although others have suggested that it was caused by Dupuytren’s contracture (also known as Vikings disease), a hand deformity that tends to develop over many years.
A new paper published last Friday in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine — a day after the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death — calls both those theories into question. The Italian authors of the paper, plastic surgeon Dr. Davide Lazzeri and neurologist Dr. Carlo Rossi, propose that da Vinci likely experienced a fall — perhaps a fainting episode — which caused traumatic nerve damage to his right arm.
This finding may explain why da Vinci continued to write, draw and teach until his death in 1519, but stopped painting several years earlier. Art historians generally agree that da Vinci was ambidextrous — that he wrote and sketched with his left arm, but painted with his right.
Ruling out a stroke
Lazzeri and Rossi base their novel theory about the impairment of da Vinci’s right hand on a 16th-century red chalk drawing attributed to one of the artist’s contemporaries, Giovanni Ambrogio Figino (1548-1608). The drawing shows the right arm of an elderly da Vinci “in folds of clothing, as if it was a bandage, with his right-hand suspended in a stiff, contracted position,” Lazzeri and Rossi write.
The drawing does not depict the gnarled, clenched hand typically seen in post-stroke patients, according to the two doctors. Instead, it “suggests an alternative diagnosis such as an ulnar palsy, commonly known as claw hand,” they write.
This condition, which gets its colloquial name from the abnormal, claw-like shape of the affected hand, can be caused by an injury to the ulnar nerve, which starts in the neck and runs down through the arm to the wrist and fingers. A fall, the doctors point out, can lead to such an injury.
But the shape of the hand in the drawing is not the only reason to rule out a stroke, Lazzeri and Rossi add. Also revealing is the fact that there are no contemporary reports describing da Vinci as having other stroke-related symptoms, such as partial paralysis of the muscles on one side of the body or cognitive problems.
In fact, in the immediate years leading up to his death, da Vinci seems to have functioned fairly well — except for his right hand. In 1517, two years before da Vinci died, an aide to a Catholic cardinal wrote this in his diary after meeting with the artist: “One cannot … expect any more good work from [da Vinci], as a certain paralysis has crippled his right hand. … [But] although Messer Leonardo can no longer paint with the sweetness which was peculiar to him, he can still design and instruct others.”
Ruling out Dupuytren’s contracture
Lazzeri and Rossi used a second drawing, a 1505 engraving that shows a man — recently identified as da Vinci — playing a lira, to dismiss the suggestion that the artist developed Dupuytren’s contracture.
“The engraving seems to pay tribute to the incomparable ability and musical skills of da Vinci, who is pictured playing the instrument,” the doctors write. “Even though the right arm and hand are not visible, we should presume that he is portrayed in optimal medical condition.”
The 16th-century painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari also recounted (albeit retrospectively) that da Vinci “was physically so strong that he could withstand violence and with his right hand he could bend the ring of an iron door knocker or a horseshoe as if they were lead.”
“We should therefore presume,” write Lazzeri and Rossi, “that until 1505 da Vinci’s right hand was working well, but that by the late years of his career he started to suffer some kind of impairment. This makes the diagnosis of Dupuytren’s disease unlikely.”
Dupuytren’s contracture is a progressive condition and, therefore, would likely have begun to show up earlier in da Vinci’s life.
In his biographical account of da Vinci, Vasari says the artist died after being “seized by a paroxysm, the messenger of death” — a description that suggests he died from either a stroke or a heart attack, several medical historians have argued.
Yet that doesn’t mean da Vinci also had a stroke — one that left his right hand impaired — several years earlier.
In fact, da Vinci showed no signs of any other degenerative health conditions, either cognitive or muscular.
That “may explain,” conclude Lazzeri and Rossi, “why he left numerous paintings incomplete, including the Mona Lisa, during the last years of his career as painter while he continued teaching and drawing.”
FMI: You’ll find the Lazzeri and Rossi’s paper on the website for the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.